U.S. House passes Pingree bill to help military sex abuse victims

Good morning from Augusta, where a referendum campaign aimed at election reform is slated to hold its kickoff event later today. 

Mainers for Accountable Elections is running a campaign urging Mainers to vote yes on Question 1 on the referendum ballot in November.

The initiated legislation in question would expand of the state’s Clean Elections program, increase penalties for campaign finance violations, and require greater transparency about who is funding third-party campaign ads. Some of these election reforms carry a cost, so the referendum, if successful, would force the Legislature to come up with $6 million by eliminating some state programs the provide tax cuts for businesses. 

The legislation at question was originally pushed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, but the Yes on Question 1 campaign is a combined effort of many Maine and national groups, including the ACLU of Maine, the League of Women Voters, the Maine Council of Churches and the Sierra Club. 

The campaign holds its kickoff at the State House at noon. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

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U.S. House passes Pingree’s bill to help military sexual assault survivors

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has been fighting for three years to ensure military disability benefits are available to veterans who suffered sexual abuse while enlisted in the service.

Last night, the House unanimously passed her bill, the Ruth Moore Act of 2015, which the congresswoman says would make it much easier for victims to get the benefits they deserve.

“Since starting to work on this issue, not a day goes by that I don’t hear from another veteran who has struggled to get the benefits they need and deserve,” Pingree said after the vote. “These veterans face multiple injustices — the first in the sexual assaults they suffered during their service and the second in the many roadblocks they face in receiving benefits. Tonight’s vote is a crucial step in holding the VA accountable and pushing them to make needed changes to help these veterans.”

The bill would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to report annually on claims of military sexual trauma — including how many it received, how many were denied, the most common reasons for denial, and how long they took to process.

The Ruth Moore Act of 2015 is named for a Washington County woman who was raped twice after enlisting in the Navy at age 18. Her attacker was never charged or disciplined, and she was labeled as suffering from mental illness and discharged, and was denied benefits for more than 20 years before the Navy in 2014 admitted its mistake and agreed to pay up.

Pingree’s counterpart from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Bruce Poliquin, was the lead GOP co-sponsor of the bill.

“This important legislation will help ensure our Veterans, who are victims of military sexual assault, receive the VA benefits they deserve to deal with the physical and mental aftermath of the attack,” Poliquin said in a written statement. “While I believe this horrific offense should have never happened in the first place, it’s imperative we get survivors of military sexual assault the benefits they desperately need as we bring forth justice.

An identical bill faces further action in the U.S. Senate. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

EqualityMaine picks Dem lawmaker Matthew Moonen as interim  director

With the resignation of its current chief, Elise Johansen, EqualityMaine has chosen Maine Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland, to lead the organization while a search for a new executive director is underway.

The group is the largest and most powerful LGBT rights advocacy group in the state.

Moonen, who is gay, was the organization’s political director during 2009, when the Maine Legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill, only to see it later repealed by voters. He was also a top strategist in the group in 2012, when same-sex marriage was legalized at the ballot.

According to a news release, Moonen will begin an “immediate and aggressive search” for a new executive director. With the marriage fight in its rearview, EqualityMaine has shifted its focus to other areas of LGBT advocacy, including training in schools and opposition to so-called “religious freedom” laws that many fear would open the door to legalized discrimination against LGBT Mainers. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

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Lobster day!

Maine lobsters. BDN file photo by Ashley Conti.

Break out the butter: Maine’s two U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, want Sept. 25, 2015, recognized as National Lobster Day.

King and Collins join Senate colleagues from New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut in supporting a resolution to declare the holiday.

More lobster are caught in Maine than anywhere else in the country, so residents of the Pine Tree State probably don’t need much help in promoting its favored seafood. But the senators said the proposed holiday is in recognition of the lobster’s “historic and economic importance” throughout the U.S.

“Since colonial times, lobster has been a boon to our coastal communities,” said Sens. King and Collins in a joint statement. “Today, thousands of American families — including hundreds in Maine — continue to rely on this vibrant industry, and it’s important that we reflect on and celebrate the positive impact it has up and down our coastline.”

I’ll take mine on a buttered hot dog roll, please and thank you. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.